A free new online tool that allows anyone to explore detailed information about criminal justice in Wisconsin, and compare metrics among counties or other states, is set to launch Tuesday.
A user could check something as simple as how many resisting arrest cases were filed in a county, or break down the age, ethnicity and indigence of the subjects and compare the results with another county or counties.
Another example: the Florida data showed the median jail term for nonviolent misdemeanors ranged from 12 days in one county to 180 days in another, the kind of information that can bring about efforts to find out why such disparities exist.
The ambitious offering comes from Measures for Justice, a nonprofit that has been building its system for more than five years. What it calls the Data Portal so far includes Wisconsin, where its research began, and five other states. It expects to slowly add the entire country, some 3,000 counties. Most of the current data covers a five-year period, from 2009 through 2013.
"Justice in America happens on the county level," said Amy Bach, who directs Measures for Justice. "To be able to fix the macro, we need to understand the micro" levels of the system, she said.
Bach said the portal will give criminal justice professionals, researchers, policy-makers, journalists and the public new ways to identify improvements to all stages of the criminal justice system, from arrest to post-conviction.
"It's a game-changer," said Bach, who launched the project in the wake of her 2009 book, "Ordinary Injustice," which pointed out criminal justice failures, for a variety of reasons, in different regions of the country.
Bach brought together criminal justice professionals, academics, technical experts and others to figure out just what to measure, the best ways to measure it, and how to present it in a user-friendly way.
One of the first people involved was Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, long an advocate for evidence-based processes. He's hopeful the data tool can continue to help identify out-of-balance issues around the state while acknowledging some system actors fear the data will be used politically or without proper context.
"But that can’t be an excuse for not welcoming the challenge of learning what we can by cross-system analysis and improving the data for the future," he said.
The data allows users to see some counties have more people jailed on misdemeanors, some have higher bails or fewer pre-trial interventions, who gets what type of lawyer, how often lawyers withdraw, how many felonies resolve within a year, what kinds of fees and fines get imposed, how many referrals for prosecution are declined and dozens of other measures.
Wisconsin's data has the most measures, 23, while Utah's has just five. But Gipsy Escobar, director of research and analytics at Measures for Justice, said even the five Utah measures can be filtered for race, gender, age, poverty and other factors that still allow deep new looks at the process in that state. Other states available now include Washington, Florida and North Carolina.
Since its inception, Measures for Justice has attracted grants to pursue its goal of collecting, understanding and presenting the nationwide data. Grants have come from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, Google, the Ford Foundation and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the McArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge. Its current operating budget is $4.6 million.
"Transparency is key to progress in any civic institution," Bach said. "When people see the data, they tend to say, 'Why doesn’t this exist already?' "
"We’re finding, data breeds data. As we put it out, people say, ‘What about my county?' I hope we're whetting an appetite here."
Bach says there's no partisan angle to the project, just a concern that the data can help each community figure out ways to improve public safety, fairness and fiscal responsibility.
'No data, no change'
"No data, no change," she said. "It's up to the user to figure out what the change should be."
Winnebago County District Attorney Christian Gossett has been helping Measures for Justice refine their product, and said he's thrilled about the prospects.
He said he's already used it to discover too many people charged with misdemeanors were sitting in jail over weekends, then getting signature bonds when they finally saw a judge.
He said he was able to waive prosecutor appearances for certain kinds of arrests, letting defendants out of jail sooner and saving the county money.
"You can’t fix what you can’t see," Gossett said. "The portal’s going to give people a way to see problems and compare yourself to others."
"I learned more from two hours of looking at MFJ’s data than I have in nine years of conducting performance analysis myself," Gossett said.
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